It is tradition for the captain of the football team to design a T-shirt. This season Rory Hennessey ’05 created a Lance Armstrong-inspired shirt that perfectly embodies the Bulldogs’ determination. The shirt reads, “Make them suffer.”
The 132nd season of Eli football is about to begin with a veteran crew of 36 returning lettermen — eight who started on offense and 11 on defense in 2003. The Ivy League media poll has pegged the Bulldogs to finish third; but the Elis tied top-ranked Penn with six first-place votes. While the Bulldogs had a solid 2003 campaign, they are not ready to sit back on their heels this year.
“The Ivy title is definitely the goal,” quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05 said. “I’ve had this goal every year and we haven’t had that much luck lately, but our goal is to win the Ivy League title and beat Harvard.”
The plan of offensive attack for this season is much the same as last year’s modus operandi, which brought the Bulldogs success. In 2003, the Elis held the Ivy records for points per game (35.4), passing yards (307.3), and total offense (479.7), which also puts them in the top 10 nationally in Div. I-AA for all three categories. The Bulldogs also held the national record in both I-A and I-AA for fewest turnovers. Besides these league and national statistics, the team also broke or tied 43 individual and team offensive records. These kind of numbers do not mean everything, but they do matter to returning starters like Cowan.
“We did lose some good guys like [tight end] Nate Lawrie ['04], but we have a lot of talent coming back,” Cowan said. “The challenge is to try to repeat or go even higher.”
Cowan said that there will be an added challenge of not having the element of offensive surprise against Yale’s opponents.
“It’s a little different game this year,” Cowan said. “It will no longer be a surprise with me or with [running back] Rob [Carr '05]. Defenses might come in with a game plan of stopping us.”
Cowan said he has faith in the offensive line, though, which is anchored by Hennessey and 2003 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Ed McCarthy ’07.
“[The offensive linemen] are really good up front,” Cowan said. “I think we we’ll be alright with those guys.”
The offense may have a solid base for this season, but the defense struggled at times last year to shut down the opposing team, turning many games into offensive shoot-outs. If the scrimmage against Princeton said anything about the Eli defenders, though, it is that the defense has put its mind to fixing the problems and plugging the gaps on their side of the field.
Head coach Jack Siedlecki said he has been trying to simplify the defensive scheme in order to allow the players to do what they do best instead of worrying about details.
“The biggest thing that we spent a lot of time on is getting pressure on the QB,” Siedlecki said. “We paid a coach from the Patriots to come in as a consultant and the defensive line went and looked at teams like the University of Pittsburgh, Delaware, and Villanova. We have improved and we are really healthy.”
Ken Estrera ’05, one of the returning starting linebackers, said he thinks defensive coordinator Rick Flanders has done a good job in the preseason of helping to execute this plan using the defensive line.
“I think [the linebackers] will be blitzing a lot more, but our defensive line and ends have been successful on getting to the QB,” Estrera said. “If we do have trouble, we are not afraid to bring linebackers or safeties.”
Estrera said he personally has been trying to understand the Yale defense better so that he knows his role as a linebacker better.
“Looking over the whole field and knowing who is in front of me and who is behind me will make me a lot better,” Estrera said.
Free safety Barton Simmons ’05, another veteran on the team, said he is glad to be back. Simmons missed the 2003 season due to a knee injury.
“I’m just gonna try to be a physical safety, try to get us lined up right, try to be a leader in the secondary and on the defense, and hopefully I’ll be able to make some big plays that can change some games,” Simmons said. “I try not to think about my injury when I’m out there, and because my knee has been feeling so good, that hasn’t been hard to do, but I do think that the injury put a little bit more desire in me to do well and to seize every opportunity.”
But it will hardly be a walk in the park to try to make the grab, find the holes, make the picks, and shut down their opponents this year. Last season, the Elis finished with a 4-3 Ivy record, tied for second with Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown. So far this fall, all indications point to another evenly matched 2004 season at the top of the Ancient Eight.
“Harvard has a strong offense, [the University of Pennsylvania] has a great defense,” Siedlecki said. “Dartmouth will also be a threat. Right now it’s a pretty even deal.”
Besides the traditional Ivy League lineup, the Bulldogs will also be facing strong non-conference teams No. 4 Colgate, No. 22 Lehigh, and the University of Dayton. Last season, Colgate was the runner up in the Div. I-AA Championship game and Lehigh was ranked nationally.
Siedlecki said he has confidence in his team because of how they played against Colgate at Colgate last season.
“It’s good to have two great non-league opponents at home,” Siedlecki said.
However, the Bulldogs are not concerned about the games down the line nor are they too focused on topping out the Ancient Eight.
“We don’t look too far ahead, we play week to week,” Estrera said.
The Bulldogs open up their 2004 campaign on the road this weekend at the University of Dayton. The home opener is scheduled for Oct. 2 versus Colgate.